The UK’s Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) has announced a new investment of £11 million to fund four new complexity science research projects.

Funded under the banner of “Complexity Science for the Real World”, the four teams of researchers will will use tools and techniques of complexity science to address fundamental problems facing society, including health care, banking systems, natural disasters, sustainability and immigration. Of special interest to development and humanitarian specialists is the work being done by UCL on ‘Explaining, Modelling, and Forecasting Global Dynamics’, where researchers will study trade, migration, security and development aid on a global scale, as well as the interaction between these systems.

An interesting comment was made by an EPSRC senior manager upon announcing these funds: “The world is made up of interwoven orderly, disorderly and complex parts. Many of these complex systems have a big impact on everyday life and this new research will enable us to understand and manipulate them to the advantage of society.” (emphasis added)

The jury is still out as to whether complex systems can in fact be ‘manipulated’ – in fact this is at the heart of a fundamental debate about how all of us working on social, economic and politcal issues position our efforts in complex systems.

The experience of many in the aid sector would indicate that complex systems cannot actually be ‘manipulated’. But the lack of control implied by this is hard to accept. As Vicky Cosstick writes in her  latest paper:

Problems that cannot be easily resolved create ambiguity, discomfort and anxiety. This anxiety may be particularly intolerable for those individuals in organisations who need to be seen to have the answers, or who feel the need to be seen to have the answers. And yet the work we do, whether as managers within INGOs or as external consultants, is rife with situations in which frankly we don’t know what to do, or we don’t know what the answer is, or we don’t really know what will happen as a result of our actions or a given intervention.

If they can effectively navigate these issues, the funded programmes really do have the potential to move forward our shared understanding of the relevance of complexity for real world problems. Watch this space for more on these exciting efforts as they unfold.

Join the conversation! 3 Comments

  1. Thanks, interesting to hear about the programmes of work including sustainability. We are attempting to create a framework for sustainability that is information-centric. So as to be able to measure complex inter-dependencies and enable objective, evidence-based decisions for sustainability.

  2. […] on the vine is that one of the unsuccessful bids for the EPSRC complexity grants (blogged about here) was to use agent-based modelling to analyse international […]

  3. I think the discussion of whether a complex system can be manipulated is important. I think that they indeed can, but it depends on where in the cycle you are. The systems can be nudged with desirable strange attractors being fed and undesirable patterns muted.

    From a leadership perspective, I think that we need conceptual frameworks that are based on adaptive leadership clusters of practice – what I call ingenuity arts – which don’t entail rigid methodologies but which include a range of learned adaptive moves that can be made.

    Great to see what is happening in the UK. Things don’t seem quite as far along in Canada in this regard.


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About Ben Ramalingam

I am a researcher and writer specialising on international development and humanitarian issues. I am currently working on a number of consulting and advisory assignments for international agencies. I am also writing a book on complexity sciences and international aid which will be published by Oxford University Press. I hold Senior Research Associate and Visiting Fellow positions at the Institute of Development Studies, the Overseas Development Institute, and the London School of Economics.


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